Tag Archives: Serena Williams

Simply the best – what a fortnight Down Under

Time didn’t stand still in Melbourne over the past fortnight, it went back almost a whole decade. 3 of the semi-finalists were surprise contenders and the other shows no sign of slowing down. A fortnight that lost both defending champions and the men’s world number one before the first week was out delivered two dream finals along with a semi final that will be remembered for many a year.

The Williams sisters contested their first final on opposite sides of the net since Wimbledon 2009, which was also Venus’ last major final. In that time, her younger sister Serena had won an incredible 11 of 14 Slam finals she had appeared in. Serena is the oldest Grand Slam champion of all time and there is no longer any doubt in my, or indeed many, minds that she is the greatest woman to ever play the sport. The fact that she still cites Venus as her inspiration, her reason for playing, and her greatest opponent must be taken seriously. Serena has never really had a long-standing rivalry at any point during her career but the fact she struggles to mentally take on Venus gives weight to the elder being her toughest opponent. Venus has done so well to play so regularly and so late into her thirties, especially given her health worries but she will always be second fiddle on the roll of honour in the Greatest Sporting Siblings of all time. Serena will get 25 majors now, at least. The fact that she didn’t lose more than four games in any of her 14 sets shows she is head and shoulders above the rest once again. It will take monumental efforts to defeat her at Wimbledon and the US Open if she maintains this sense of purpose.

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Whilst on the subject of longevity, I look back at my first ever trip to Wimbledon in 2001. The first match I saw on Centre Court was Serena Williams in majestic form against Jelena Dokic. Williams was already a US Open champion at that point and booked a quarter-final berth in straight sets. The following match on the oldest stage of them all saw seven-times champion Pete Sampras come up against the young up-and-comer from Switzerland, Roger Federer. I have always stated my presence at that match as the reason behind my almost-obscene admiration for Federer. To see him lift his 18th major sixteen years on, and five years after his previous one, has overwhelmed me slightly. I had consistently believed he would win another one but, after his six-month injury lay-off, I had finally written him off two weeks ago. Instead, he rolled back the years to defeat Tomas Berdych, Kei Nishikori, Stan Wawrinka and his old nemesis Rafael Nadal to deservedly claim the title. He has looked after his body like no male player I have known in my twenty-five years of following the sport and this is just reward for his determination to hang in there whilst the ravages of time seemed to fatally weaken him. The two-slam swing that happened earlier today will surely ensure that Nadal does not now match his haul of 18 majors. The first four sets were good, but not classic. There was always a sense that it would come down to a fifth set (breakfast and cups of tea had to be strategically planned). The fifth set had it all, vintage Federer and Nadal going at it hammer and tongs for maybe one final time in a major final. For 30 minutes, we were all transported back to 2008, when Rafa finally overcame Federer on his Centre Court in a match for the ages. But this time, it was to be the Swiss who held the ‘young’ pretender off, defeating him in a Grand Slam for the first time in a decade. No two players out there bring the best out of each other quite like those two do; their styles are so polar opposite that it just feels right. This fortnight will give Nadal so much heart: he saw off Alexander Zverev, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils in varying degrees of ease but his defeat of an inspired, rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals is the true stand-out match of the tournament. Dimitrov looked every inch the Grand Slam champion, ready to smash through his own personal glass ceiling. Unfortunately, he had not counted on Nadal’s double-glazing defence, a real throwback to the Spaniard of four or five years ago. Such was Nadal’s form here that he should be odds-on favourite to claim his tenth Roland Garros in the spring, a real shot in the arm for the rest of the game.

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As for the others, it was a sobering tournament for Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Simona Halep, Agnieska Radwanska and Angelique Kerber who all massively underachieved. Murray will hope it is merely a post-Knighthood blip but Djokovic needs to take time away to reassess the lie of the land. Kerber will come back strongly in the next few months but the other two ladies have now missed the Grand Slam title boat, the ship has definitely sailed. It is dangerous of course to write people off; Roger Federer proved that and only nine months ago I wrote about how Grigor Dimitrov was wasting his talent but you do really sense that neither Radwanska or Halep have the necessary steel. What a tournament for Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, reaching her first semi-final since 1999, a feat she personally accepted made up for all her tough times. Who would have thought Mischa would be the Zverev to go deepest in the men’s tournament; he was, however, full value for his four-set victory over Murray.

Whatever happens in the rest of 2017 surely cannot provide nearly as many stories as these last fifteen days in Melbourne have. The Williams sisters hugging it out on the final evening and the two greatest male players of all time having what will probably prove to be one last five-setter final.  You sensed tears weren’t far from any of their eyes and your heart goes out to the losers but goodness, when there is so much misery and hate in the world right now, didn’t tennis do an awful lot of good for us old romantics.

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Australian Open 2017 – runners and riders ready to race for title

Whilst both draws have been hampered by injuries and doubts over form and fitness, the wise money would be on a repeat of 2016’s finals in Melbourne although it is hard to pick a winner in either tournament. Here’s a by-no-means comprehensive rundown of who to look out for in the next 14 days:

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Andy Murray (I’m not calling him Sir whilst he remains an active sportsperson) comes into this year riding the crest of a wave. There was no doubt that he was the man to beat in the second half of 2016, nobody managing to beat the indefatigable Brit during the final four months of the season. He lost to former number one Novak Djokovic in Doha two weeks ago but he will expect to reach his sixth Australian Open final. Don’t forget that age-old idiom…sixth time lucky?! Djokovic himself is almost impregnable in Melbourne – he has already won the title on six prevous occasions and it takes an almost-superhuman effort to even come close to challenging him on the Rod Laver Arena. His split with coach Boris Becker could cause him problems, the German having cast doubt on Djokovic’s recent hunger but the Serb looked pretty hungry to me in Doha, appearing to be revitalised after the winter break. Let’s also be clear that Djokovic did not play badly in the final six months of 2016 – save for his two off-days againat Sam Querrey at Wimbledon. The ATP Tour was ripped apart by Murray and Djokovic’s level dropped slightly; he was still the second best player over the final part of the year.

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Angelique Kerber comes into the defence of what was her breakthrough Slam in shaky form. She lost early to an inspired Daria Kasatkina in Sydney last week but arrived in Melbourne with almost a week to spare and I expect her to go deep again in the year’s first major. She should draw as much inspiration from her opening round last year as the final itself; the fact she came back from match points down ought to give her strength to come through any tough matches. Her route to a second final looks relatively stress-free but if Serena Williams is waiting in the final, the world number one will have to produce a similar display to her stunning performance in last year’s final if she is to stop the American winning her 23rd Grand Slam. Serena has an extremely tough first round against Belinda Bencic, only unseeded due to an injury lay-off, but this usually results in the former number one kicking into top gear right from the start. If she does get through to the final, I tip Serena to take Melbourne revenge on Kerber and get one notch closer to Margaret Court’s all-time record.

Ones to watch

There is no Madison Keys, Petra Kvitova, Juan-Martin del Potro, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka for a variety of both pleasant and unpleasant reasons but there is a sense that anybody could come through and challenge last year’s finalists. Could it be a fourth year in five that a teenager reaches the women’s semi-finals? I can’t see it but then not many predicted Sloane Stephens, Genie Bouchard or Keys in 2013-2015. If Venus Williams hits the ground running, she could reach the semi-finals and expect Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the same stage. Johanna Konta had an incredible rise up the rankings over the last 18 months and put paid to both Radwanska and Bouchard easily in Sydney but a quarter-final may be the best she can hope for here. Karolina Pliskova is the wildcard here; she seems to be playing with extreme confidence since she dispatched both Williams sisters in the US Open. If she serves so well again, she can be a big danger to the top two.

The Wawrinka backhand – gorgeous

Don’t anticipate a second-week appearance for Roger Federer – nobody will want to see the 17-times major winner in their section but he will have to beat Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori in successive rounds merely to make it to the quarter-finals and he isn’t capable of doing that at 35 after a six-month injury lay-off. Rafael Nadal is a different kettle of fish altogether and a favourable draw could see him into the last four for the first time since 2014; a third round showdown with Alexander Zverev would be a real inter-generational blockbuster but Nadal should still just about have enough, for the moment. Stan Wawrinka will reach the semi-finals and, as we all know, nobody can stop him if he is on. He’s coming into the tournament a little under the radar which suits him down to the ground. Remember he is the only man to have beaten Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open since 2010. Should he squeeze past Murray in the semi-finals, another classic chapter of Djokovic v Wawrinka would await.

Home hopes

The Aussie fans are desperate to see their players go the distance and despite a talented group of young men, the dream still looks a way off realisation. Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios could both reach the second week but tough draws mean that their challenges would hand at the ends of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Wawrinka respectively. As for the women, Sam Stosur will hope to reach the fourth round for only the second time but you cannot expect her to get the better of Radwanska. Likewise, feisty Dasha Gavrilova will harness the energy of the crowd although that would not be enough to see her past Pliskova in the last 16. The wait for a winner, or even a finalist (Lleyton Hewitt in 2005 the last person to do so), will go on.

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Predictions

Semis – Kerber v Venus Williams and Radwanska v Serena Williams, Murray v Wawrinka and Nadal v Djokovic

Final – Serena to beat Kerber and Djokovic to beat Murray

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Roof, good scheduling and great tennis – no grumbles here!

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It’s high up there!

 

Wonders will never cease; the USTA finally had its roof in place and gone were any second-week worries about the tournament finishing on time. In addition, the oft-criticised 3-day first round is now a thing of the past so all that is left to reflect on is the tennis itself. And it delivered in no small doses. We had old favourites returning to form, newbies breaking through and people finally realising their potential, all capped off by a new number one in the women’s game, and THAT doesn’t happen too often.

The men’s tournament had some stellar moments; Stan Wawrinka saved a match point as early as the third round when Britain’s Dan Evans pushed him all the way. I had predicted the Swiss would disappoint in New York so I was licking my lips with relish but the now three-time major winner found a way to get through and go all the way to the winners’ circle. After his tussle with Evans, nobody really laid a glove on Stan until he locked horns with Novak Djokovic on the last day of the event. Djokovic himself will never get an easier route to a grand slam final; two of his opponents retired hurt, one of them didn’t even make it onto court and his semi-final opponent produced the most ridiculous last-four performance I can remember for many a year; Gael Monfils believing that playing at walking pace was going to be enough to get past one of the greatest players of all time. This helped the Serb no end as he had come into the tournament with his own niggling physical and personal doubts. As for the final itself, there was a purveying sense that Djokovic had to get ahead and hope to hold on. He managed to edge that first set tiebreak, which included an epic point for the ages but, from then on in, much like at Roland Garros last year, Wawrinka reeled him in and pounded winner after winner down the lines. There has already been talk of a ‘Big 5’ but Roger Federer hasn’t won a major in over four years and it is two and a half years since Nadal won one or even got to the last four. Those two legacies are intact but they should no longer be talked about in the same breath as Djokovic and now Murray and Wawrinka. Stan has three majors to his name, and more cannot be completely ruled out. When he is on, he really is on.

Three-time major winner

Elsewhere in the men’s draw, we were treated to a fine run from Juan-Martin del Potro, who at one point was looking likely to be the man to come through the draw from the bottom half. As it is, a quarter-final result is likely to please delPo supporters and if he can remain injury-free, he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2017, buoyed by an improved ranking too of course. Lucas Pouille and Rafael Nadal produced a match-of-the-tournament contender, with the young Frenchman coming out on top to make his second successive major quarter-final. It was riveting to see Nadal fight like the champion he is but Pouille’s swashbuckling style had too much on the day. Andy Murray’s summer of exertion finally caught up with him and it was refreshing to see Kei Nishikori take advantage of a temper tantrum from the world number two to book a well-overdue semi-final appearance.

The big problem in the men’s tournament was the number of withdrawals or retirements. Every single round through to the quarter-finals had at least one pull-out with a total of nine. It would appear that the tough summer schedule caught up with some guys here. It is well-documented how well tennis players are paid for each round they progress at a grand slam so it is no surprise to see them taking a chance on their fitness. One wonders if it would be wise in the future to bend the schedule a little in an Olympic year.

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The women’s tournament delivered a strong fortnight. Angelique Kerber became the new world number one, finally putting an end to Serena Williams’ stranglehold on that position which had lasted for three and a half years. Kerber is a deserved leader of the women’s game; she has won more slams this year than any other player and has defeated her old mental demons. The last few days have transformed her career from being very good to great. The way she hangs in points and then produces bullet winners from impossible angles is a joy to watch and her final against Karolina Pliskova was one of the great finals of this century. Their games pushed the other’s to the absolute limit and it was so good to see Pliskova handle the occasion so well. It was difficult to comprehend how she had never gone beyond the third round of a major before this fortnight but she fair smashed through that glass ceiling in New York. Pliskova’s deep crisp hitting is reminiscent of Lindsay Davenport, something which would have made her more fans at Flushing Meadows had she not dumped out both of the Williams’ sisters in the space of three evenings, her final set tie-breaker victory over Venus the match of the tournament for me (Naomi Osaka’s brave performance defeat to Madison Keys was a close second, but the quality didn’t quite match the drama). It will be interesting to see if the Czech continues on this upward trajectory; her game looks particularly suited to both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

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On top of the world – the new champion is the new world number 1!

 

Caroline Wozniacki rolled back the years and hit fine form once again in New York, her favourite city. The two-time finalist didn’t quite match her previous best but a semi-final appearance will go some way to regaining lost ground in the rankings race. She was on the brink in the first round against Taylor Townsend but did not look back from then on until she hit a Kerber brick wall in the last four. Ana Konjuh had a breakthrough tournament, knocking out two seeds including Agnieszka Radwanska before coming undone against Pliskova in the quarter-finals. Garbine Muguruza once again disappointed early in the fortnight and will need to go back to the drawing board to regain the momentum she built up with her Roland Garros victory, which already seems an awful long time ago. Serena Williams came into the tournament with concerns over her fitness but she had a good tournament. We forget that this woman is 34 and it still requires somebody to play an inspired match to knock her out; this time it was Pliskova who raised her game magnificently but Serena has had another terrific year.

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Holding on tight to a deserved title

 

Overall, a fine fortnight in the new stadium with some unforgettable matches, a new number one in the women’s game and two new US Open champions. I can’t wait to be a part of it all again next year!

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All to play for in New York: US Open 2016 Preview

 

The final Grand Slam of the year rolls around in a few hours’ time with form and fitness concerns hanging over many of the usual suspects. It’s more difficult this year to differentiate the dead certs from the outsiders and the dark horses, made even more challenging by the Olympics disrupting the US Open Series, usually such a reliable barometer of form. All this being said, you’d be a brave person to back anybody from outside of Djokovic, Kerber, Murray and Williams to lift the trophies in two weeks’ time.

 

Huge doubts linger around Novak Djokovic’s chances in New York. He has even been labelled as an unknown quantity coming into this major – these claims are risible. He is not world number 1 for no reason and is the current holder of three of the four Grand Slams. Yes, he went out uncharacteristically early at Wimbledon and was dumped out of the Rio Olympics in tears, but these tears were more the result of him knowing this was his best chance of winning Gold; he will be well past his peak by the time Tokyo 2020 comes around. He obviously has some slight injury concern bothering him but it would be foolish not to expect him to reach the final few days in the Big Apple. Milos Raonic, should he get that far, may well fancy his chances of upsetting the Serb at the semi-final stage, given the big-hitting games of Sam Querrey and Juan-Martin del Potro have caused the Serb problems in his last two top-tier matches. The Wimbledon runner-up comes into this tournament just days after John McEnroe leaving his coaching team – this should prove no problem as Carlos Moya can continue his excellent work with the big-serving amiable Canadian.

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The 2012 champion will be looking to add to his amazing 12 months

 

The bookmakers may disagree but I consider Andy Murray to be the strong favourite heading into the tournament in which he broke his Grand Slam duck four years ago. On that occasion, he defeated Djokovic in five gruelling sets and it is surely only his poor record against the Serb in recent years that is stopping more people marking him as the man to beat here. He is 19-2 in the majors this year and became the first singles player in history to retain Olympic Gold in Rio earlier this month. His absorbing duel with Juan-Martin del Potro in that final will do him more good than any match he played at Wimbledon; he may need to tough it out in New York and that final proved he can not only stand toe-to-toe with one of the biggest sloggers the game has ever seen, but ultimately overcome him. Murray will need to be wary of Lukas Rosol in the first round as we all know he is capable of turning it on every now and again but should then face no troubles until he faces a rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the Last 8. His potential semi-final looks easier on paper than the other half of the draw so he could come into the final weekend feeling relatively fresh, which could prove crucial if it is Djokovic on the other side of the net. I may be biased but I see little way past the Scot this fortnight.

Others to watch include two-time champion Rafael Nadal who seemed in much finer form in Rio and is obviously refreshed by his decision to once again skip Wimbledon, del Potro who is still capable of hitting anybody off the court and finally appears to have put his injuries behind him, and Nick Kyrgios whose enforced absence from the Olympics has allowed him to get accustomed to the American hard courts. It remains to be seen which Kyrgios turns up.

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Two more former champs in with a fighting chance

 

Serena Williams comes into her home major aiming for her 23rd Grand Slam. She is the six-time champion in New York but will want to make amends for the aberration that was her inexplicable semi-final loss to Roberta Vinci last year. Williams has some minor fitness concerns coming into the final major of the year but should she successfully negotiate a tough opening round against Ekaterina Makarova (an Australian Open semi-finalist just eighteen months ago), Serena is likely to go all the way through to Finals weekend. Of course one can never fully discount an off-day such as when the resurgent Elina Svitolina thumped her out of the Olympic Games earlier this month but Serena will have a further layer of dominance added to her now she has moved ahead of Steffi Graf in major titles. The biggest roadblock to a potential final could be her elder sister. It is seven years since Venus last lifted the title in New York but she will be the overwhelming crowd favourite were she to get anywhere near the business end of the tournament; tennis loves a fighting ex-champion and Venus ticks every box.

Madison Keys will be delighted she has landed in the opposite side of the draw to the top two Americans. Keys looks the very clear favourite to carry American hopes for the next generation if the Williams sisters ever stop playing. She gives off a Petra Kvitova impression; if her game clicks in any particular fortnight she is going to blow everybody away. A semi-final in Rio will be small comfort to her as she lost out on a bronze medal to Kvitova but a favourable draw here could see her advance all the way to Finals weekend. She has found a way past Venus Williams in the past but is yet to prove she is a match to Serena. If the Williams’ slip, Keys could be the one to capitalise.

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Outsiders: Konta and Svitolina

 

Elsewhere, Angelique Kerber appears to be the non-American who stands the best chance of lifting the trophy. Kerber v2.0 has had a wonderful 2016, currently tied at 1-1 with Williams in their major finals. However, her defeat to Monica Puig in the Olympics final smacked of the old Kerber, failing to beat an inferior opponent due to apparent mental fragility. There is no doubt that Puig played the tournament of her life but Kerber should have had enough wherewithal to get past her when push came to shove. The world number two will come into the Open determined to prove that was an anomaly and a deciding rubber against Serena appears to be the most likely outcome on the women’s side. Backed by a home crowd, one would have to assume that Serena would come out on top again in another closely-fought tussle.

Expect strong tournaments from Dominika Cibulkova as she looks to round off an impressive showing at the year’s majors, as well as Agnieszka Radwanska and Johanna Konta who currently lead the US Open Series. Radwanska can always be relied upon to disappoint but she should seal a quarter-final place, and Konta will be hoping to push towards the Top 10 by matching that performance. A step further than that appears to be a little out of their collective reaches at this moment in time.

Predictions

Murray to beat Raonic in the final

Serena to beat Kerber

Most likely to surprise: Monica Puig, Elina Svitolina, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem

Most likely to disappoint: Stanislas Wawrinka, Petra Kvitova and Borna Coric

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Wimbledon 2016 – how they rated

Andy Murray 9/10

Two-time Wimbledon champion

 

The Brit exceeded pre-tournament expectations but, more importantly, dealt with the burden of becoming favourite over the final nine days of the tournament. His run to the title was stress-free save for a tough two sets against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals. Crucially, the Scot kept his head when so often in the Lendl-free days he would have lost it. A first major for three years is a great way of starting his partnership with Jamie Delgado, with Lendl back in the mix too. Expect Murray to go close in New York after helping Great Britain into the semis of the Davis Cup but don’t rule out an early exit in Rio where he will defend his Olympic crown.

Milos Raonic 8/10

Make no mistake – Carlos Moya is taking this guy to a new level. There’s been a lot of credit given to the latest ‘super coach’ John McEnroe yet it is Moya who is adding steel to Raonic’s game. The Canadian’s rise has been solid and he now finally looks capable of being a Slam winner. He should and will be disappointed with his inability to figure out Murray’s brick wall in the final but he will get another shot in the US Open and his game suits three of the four majors so expect him to win one sooner rather than later. He found a way to get past the legend that is Roger Federer in the match of the tournament and will now feel he belongs in every conversation about possible winners at the next two Slams.

Roger Federer 6/10

This may seem harsh but Federer missed his last chance here. His comeback win over Marin Cilic was dramatic but the chinks in his game were spotted and exploited by Raonic. Federer schooled the Canadian at Wimbledon 2014 but whilst the younger man has moved on, Federer’s body has finally refused him any further progress. It remains to be seen if the Swiss will take part in the 2017 season. Will he still be a major semi-finalist should he decide to go on? Probably. Can he win another? The answer to that is a categorical no. Federer’s joie de jouer may now dip if he feels he cannot make it to Grand Slam #18. One thing’s for sure – a more popular player Centre Court will not see for many a decade.

Federer victorious in 2011

17 and most probably out…

 

Novak Djokovic 6/10

Not as disastrous as it first seems. This guy has been putting his body and mind under insane pressure in his quest for the Calendar Slam. His early exit here coupled with his usual sitting-out of the Davis Cup quarter-finals will give the world #1 the necessary time to recuperate from what has been a stunning year in which he held all four majors. The pressure will have been notched down rather than up for a change so don’t be surprised to see Djokovic return fitter, stronger and just as good as before.

Nicolas Mahut 10/10

The genial Frenchman has ensured that his name will not just be remembered for THAT 2011 match which he lost. As well as reaching the last 16 in the singles, the 34-year-old has found a young doubles partner capable of complementing his game perfectly. They are now holders of two of the four majors and are the best doubles team in the world right now; Pierre-Hugues Herbert can achieve things in singles also but I’m sure most neutrals were more delighted for his partner Mahut as he became a Wimbledon champion on Saturday evening.

Nick Kyrgios 2/10

Everybody knows I’m not a fan so I won’t write too much. Get a grip, Kyrgios. People are paying big money and to tank when you lose a set is pathetic. Hire a coach who will test you, not pander to you. Want to be a champion or not? Talented players without the desire to win are ten-a-penny and are forgotten overnight. Kyrgios has the ability to win Wimbledon but right now he is a million miles away as he has the heart of a pea.

Serena Williams 10/10

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22 not out

 

If Kyrgios wants an example of how it is done, he should look no further than the seven-time Wimbledon champion who now has 22 Grand Slams to her name. At the age of 30, she took the decision to hire Patrick Mouratoglu as her coach and their partnership has reaped gigantic reward. Serena has never lost a mental battle on court and her Wimbledon fortnight is one to be cherished. She was pushed in round 2 by her compatriot Christina McHale but came through in three sets. From there, her route was relatively straightforward but when pushed by Angelique Kerber in the final, she came out on top. This will be of huge relief to the American after losses at the business end of the previous three majors. If I had a mansion, I would put it at stake to back Serena to win #23 in nine weeks’ time.

Angelique Kerber 8/10

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Kerber v2.0 can win more majors

 

The Australian Open champion made serene progress during the first week before knocking out Simona Halep and Venus Williams in consecutive rounds. She could not repeat her feat of defeating Serena but her overall fortnight has lain to rest any lingering remnants of the old mentally-fragile Kerber. Angie v2.0 is a force to be reckoned with. It would be a major surprise if she fails to surpass her previous best of a quarter-final berth in New York in September and she is likely to once again provide the younger Williams with her stiffest competition. Let’s hope the Wimbledon champion’s longevity encourages Kerber that she too can maintain this level for a good few years.

Venus Williams 9/10

There was nothing spectacular about the elder Williams’ run to the semi-finals, defeating nobody that she hadn’t been expected to. However therein lays the sheer quality of her tournament and level; at the age of 36 she is still living with players in the Top 10. She is still capable of winning slams – yes it requires a favourable draw and a Serena slip but Venus is as capable now of winning the US Open or Wimbledon as at any other time in the last five years.

Elena Vesnina 9/10

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Vesnina’s stand-out single performance

 

‘The Vesh’ finally gets a mention on this page for her singles exploits. A multi-slam doubles champion, she went deep into a major for the first time on her own. Knocking out Andrea Petkovic, Ekaterina Makarova and Dominika Cibulkova meant that she deserved her place in the last four. Granted her semi-final appearance was over quicker than it takes to fly from Paris to London but for somebody who has seen her suffer so many tough first-round losses over the past ten years, it is amazing to see somebody like Vesnina get her moment in the spotlight.

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Blushing bride

 

Dominika Cibulkova 10/10 – Wimbledon quarter-finalist and made it out of there in time to get married. Ace fortnight!

Petra Kvitova 2/10 – Must do better, especially on grass.

Garbine Muguruza 5/10 – Early loss will do her good and keep her feet on the ground.

Simona Halep 7/10 – Back to her best, will go deep in the US Open.

Tomas Berdych 6/10 – Perennial semi-finalist.

Sam Querrey 8/10 – Backed up shock win by making the last eight.

Lucas Pouille 9/10 – Making great strides. Not seen him play yet, but surely one to watch?

Marcus Willis 10/10 – Tested Hollywood scriptwriters. We will NEVER see him again but nice story.

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Plenty of early Brexits, but Serena and Djokovic Remain the ones to beat

The Championships

There’s a strong temptation these days to just hand the Wimbledon trophies over to Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic and not bother playing the tournament at all. But with Andy Murray reuniting with Ivan Lendl and Serena not having won a major since this time a year ago, what hope is there for a different name on those trophies in two weeks’ time?

Serena Williams should not have too many issues until next weekend, when she is set for a Centre Court showdown with either Heather Watson, who came so close to defeating her on that very court at the same stage last year or, more probably, with Kiki Mladenovic who pushed her close in Paris last month. If Serena were to come through that potential banana skin, she could race away to her 22nd Grand Slam but I just have a gut feeling that Mladenovic may get the better of her in a big shock.

Still 21 not out

If Serena does fall by the wayside, who are the main candidates for victory? As I so often say, you cannot discount Agnieszka Radwanska from a run at the All England Club and should she benefit from Serena being ousted she would be the most experienced player left in that half of the draw. Of course, Radwanska’s career has been ruined by a niggling lack of bottle when the going gets tough so I wouldn’t make her outright favourite at any stage. Gaby Muguruza is aiming to win back-to-back majors but may find the quick turnaround a little bit too tough emotionally and I wouldn’t be surprised if she too goes out in the first week.

Sabine Lisicki may be unseeded but, as a former finalist here, she can never be ruled out. Her form has been less than desirable for over nine months now but she always brings her best form to South West London. The same applies to Petra Kvitova, the two-time former champ. Can she bring her A game to Wimbledon 2016? Nothing coming in suggests that it is likely and she is going to come up against a dangerous floater in Barbora Strycova as early as the third round so I’d be amazed if she were to complete a hat-trick of titles.

It is Madison Keys who I believe stands the strongest outside bet going into this year’s championships. Her game is improving solidly; she has been to a Major semi-final at last year’s Australian Open and is fresh from a grass court title in Brimingham last two weeks ago. Were she to have to go through Serena Williams in the final, I would make her the underdog and not back against Serena. But should Serena not make it, I expect the Stars and Stripes to still be flying, this time for a new champion in Madison Keys.

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Madison Keys is in fine form

 

In the men’s tournament, there is simply nothing that will scare Novak Djokovic. He must recognise that he is head and shoulders above everybody in the game right now. If he plays to his maximum ability and intensity he will walk away from here just seven match wins away from the Grand Slam, all four majors in the same calendar year. He could face a small test in the Last 16 in the shape of Philipp Kohlschreiber who has caused him trouble in the past but there is nothing to indicate the German could take out the 2016 Djokovic over five sets. After that, Milos Raonic would need to play the match of his life to take out a warmed-up Djokovic and it is just unlikely to happen.

Everything points to a second Wimbledon final between the World number one and Britain’s number one Andy Murray. Murray won their previous final encounter, in straight sets back in 2013 but only the most patriotic Brit or foolhardy gambler would back him to achieve such a convincing victory this time around. Does Murray have a shot? Yes. He has a very favourable draw and I can see him losing no more than two sets on his way to another home Grand Slam final appearance. But he would need to be absolutely on it and hope Djokovic is not at the top of his game for him to take home the title. Having Ivan Lendl back in his camp will be important to him and there was always a sense that these two special characters would end up back together; they’re almost meant to be. But it looks like a third runners-up trophy of the year for the Scot.

On course for the calendar Grand Slam

 

Away from the top two, expect a decent tournament but nothing more from 7-time champ Roger Federer. His season has been too affected by injury for him to string anything more than five matches together at his spiritual home. The Swiss legend should content himself with a quarter-final berth. Of the “next generation”, I’d pick Dominic Thiem to once again go the deepest but a place in the last 16 will probably be the best he can hope for here, which doesn’t quite stand up to his semi-final result in Paris. That said, it would represent real consolidation of an excellent spring for the talented young Austrian. The pack is assembling under Djokovic but there is some way to go before they start snapping at his heels.

My picks:

Women’s champion: Serena Williams

Men’s champion: Novak Djokovic

Break-out star: Madison Keys

Likely to spring a shock: Barbora Strycova, Kiki Mladenovic, Ivo Karlovic and Gilles Simon

Set to disappoint: Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova and Stan Wawrinka

Brit watch: Murray to reach final, no other player to reach the second week.

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Djokovic must seize his best opportunity yet – French Open 2016 preview

The arguments that Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player to have ever lived get louder and more numerous with each passing year. His place in history is safe but only by lifting the Roland Garros crown will he feel that he’s achieved all that he is capable of. Last year showed signs that the obsession was crippling him, it all getting too much for him once again in a final. Does 2016 provide him with an ever greater opportunity than last year did?

The World Number 1 made a massive breakthrough in Paris last year when he ousted 9-time champion Rafael Nadal in straight sets, as much a mental breakthrough as anything else. Nadal is no longer impregnable at Roland Garros and this will give everybody a boost. Look what happened when Roger Federer’s invincibility started to ebb away; Sergiy Stakhovsky is what happened. Djokovic must take every match as it comes (something at which he is usually so adept) and there is little doubt that he will appear in the final in a fortnight’s time. Who is he likely to face?

Most neutrals will be cheering Djokovic on

The usual suspects will line up, minus one noticeable absentee. This will be the first Grand Slam in 66 that Roger Federer has failed to take his place in. Let’s just be clear about the enormity of that – this is the first tennis major that the Swiss has not appeared at THIS MILLENNIUM! The 17-time major winner has opted to give this one a miss in order to allow his back to fully recover, seemingly with one eye on giving Wimbledon a sizeable tilt at the end of June. His absence means genuine contenders are few and far between. The obvious two candidates are Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. The latter has been in the finest clay court form of his career recently, competing at a high level with both Nadal and Djokovic each time he has met one. His recent victory over Djokovic in the Rome final will have given him a gigantic psychological lift, ending that horrendous losing streak he had been enduring at the hands of the Serb; Murray looks set for a first French Open final. If he slips up, Nadal is sure to take advantage but it is hard to see the Mallorcan finding a way through both the Scot and Djokovic. The winner will certainly come from those three and the smart money is on Djokovic cementing his place in tennis history by completing the career Grand Slam and taking him clear of Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver to achieve his 12th major title.

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Serena will likely have her feet up with the trophy again on June 4th

 

On the women’s side, it is practically impossible to see beyond reigning champion Serena Williams. Her previous closest competitor Maria Sharapova will not be there to seek out her third French Open title and we currently do not know when, or indeed if, we will ever see her on court again after her failed drugs test. As ever, it will take a monumental effort from somebody to topple the 21-time major winner, but recent defeats in the latter stages of Grand Slams will give hope to the field. In the past, once Serena had played her way into a tournament that tended to be it – but she has lost at the semi and final stage of the last two major tournaments and the likes of Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber and even Svetlana Kuznetsova will fancy their chances if they can hit some kind of form in the French capital. Of course, Victoria Azarenka cannot be ruled out from completing her comeback by returning to the winners’ circle and Gabby Muguruza will look to defend her points from her fine Spring of 2015 by matching or bettering her results this time around. Nevertheless, the smart money will be on the younger Williams sister drawing level with Steffi Graf on 22 major titles, as long as she doesn’t get too tempted by the dog food on offer in Paris’ finest brasseries as she did recently in Rome. As for me, I’m off to the first three days so will check in with my experiences sometime next week. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take me an hour to get a coffee this time!

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